Public Involvement During COVID-19
So many things have changed for us all in the past few months, and many people are seeking a sense of normalcy and continuity where they can. For Huddle and many of our clients, that includes continuing the momentum of project management and public involvement in new and innovative ways.
Since covid-19 started impacting Alaska directly, Huddle has modified its public involvement strategies to create virtual engagement while also trying to make sure no one is left out due to the lack of digital resources. Below are some of our strategies and tools for keeping people engaged and projects moving forward.
Huddle had originally been planning a small, outdoor public open house with pop up tents and tables spaced out, and increased staff presence to help with the flow of participants and keep them mindful of wearing a mask and social distancing. As with many things in 2020, the team reevaluated those plans and opted for a virtual open house.
For this meeting, we did much of the same outreach we would normally do: mail postcards to residents in the project area, send out an e-newsletter, update the project website with the latest information, and reach out to local organizations, such as community councils. For the actual meeting, the project team chose to utilize a Microsoft Teams meeting. This platform allows for people to call in or join on any device, allows multiple team members to present, and has increased controls for the meeting organizer. A call-in number and link were sent out using all of the above methods, as well as being placed on the website. The team also provided contact information of a staff member if anyone needed extra assistance in order to participate, and made copies of the presentation available for pick up at a public building for anyone who would be calling in and unable to see the presentation on-screen.
Agencies that have social media platforms should make sure to provide timely updates about meetings and opportunities to participate.
Virtual Open Houses
Before covid-19, the materials presented at public open houses were placed on the project website for those who couldn’t attend to review independently. The Huddle team has been utilizing Esri StoryMaps more because the story maps are easy to create using pre-designed templates, interactive, and visually engaging. You can incorporate elements such as surveys, maps, high quality imagery, and slideshows into the story map allowing for a more detailed and comprehensive overview of the materials.
One of the big takeaways from hosting a virtual open house is that the moderator role is enhanced and crucial to success. The moderator welcomed all the participants, did a brief overview of how the platform works and house rules (e.g. mute your mic when not speaking, etc.), and has the ability to mute people or remove them from the meeting if they are being repeatedly inappropriate or disruptive (unlikely, but it’s good to plan for all scenarios). The moderator sets the tone for the meeting and makes sure everyone feels included and understands how to participate.
Microsoft Teams has continued to improve its virtual meeting controls, and you can now download an attendance sheet, record and share meetings, and have greater control of how and when attendees participate using the “raise your hand” feature and the meeting chat box. These mechanisms are helpful for documenting the public process and ensuring everyone’s questions and comments are part of the project record.
While we’ve used Microsoft Teams, colleagues have also had success using Zoom, BlueJeans, and Google Meet.
One of the critiques of traditional public involvement is how hard it is to capture the feedback of people who need evening childcare to participate, lack transportation to a specific location, or work “non-traditional” work schedules. Increasing the spectrum of options lets participants choose what works best for them, at a convenient time. And due to increased sophistication of technology, some of those materials are even more readily available in other languages or with closed captioning.
Agencies and organizations can make plans for how to involve the community but need to remain flexible and adaptive to sudden changes. One strategy will likely not reach everyone and it’s our duty to meet people where they are at so they can participate and provide valuable input. This was true before covid-19, and remains vital to a thorough, representative public process.
We’ve loved seeing what other agencies and cities are doing to keep people engaged, and here are a few of our favorites:
- The City of High Point, NC live tweets its City Council meetings with a specific gif-theme (e.g. goats, dogs, baseball) each meeting. It’s hilarious.
- Salt Lake City’s Civic Engagement Team put out a “Practices for Engagement in the Time of Covid” handbook, which serves as a compilation of strategies, available technologies, and ways to best bridge the digital divide.
- The City of Derby, KS is creating time lapse videos of construction projects.
- The town of Amherst, MA is hosting a series of live Community Chats + Q&As with different guests. The chats are livestreamed and placed on Youtube.